Books and Book Reviews: September 2004 Archives

Puritanism--Reductio ad Absurdum

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First, please let me make it perfectly clear that much to Erik's eternal chagrin, I do have enormous respect for and love of the writings of some of the Puritan divines. I nevertheless can set that in the balances with the plain fact that on some issues they were simply wrong. They overcorrected a perceived fault and wound up in error themselves.

That said, I was amused by the following anecdote:

from God's Secretaries
Adam Nicolson

The words of scripture, and an intellectual consideration of them, were the essence of Separatist Christianity and in many ways of Protestant Christianity itself. Some separatist pastors took this one step further: if the Bible was the word of God, it was intended to be conveyed to men in its orignial languages. Every translation, however good, was bound to contain errors and so by defintiion could not be used. If God had spoken in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, then those were the lanugages in which he should be heard. John Smyth, originally from Gainsborough, but by 1608 pastor of the Brethren of the Separation of the Second English Church at Amsterdam, its congregation made of of Lincolnshire farmers, decided that they needed to hear the scriptures in the original. One can only imagine the effect on the poor exiles from Gainsborough: hour on hour of Smyth reading out passages of Hebrew and Greek of which they had not the fiantest understanding, desperately looking for the sanctity in this.

Smyth was an eccentric--after realising that no other ecclesiastical authority could be as pure as himself, he dunked himself in holy water and became famous as the Se-Baptizer or Self-Baptist--but his position is only a distortion and exaggeration of what everyone in Protestant Europe believed. (p. 181)

The book is full of vignettes like this. We get a sense of the times and of the people and of the conflicts of ideas that gave rise to the Authorized Version. What many protestants do not remember or even know is that the Authorized Version in its original translation included all of the deuterocanonical books. The KJV is a truncation of the full translation of the text of the Bible. This is an aside.

For those interested in the history of the most important translation of all time, this book is a remarkable and easy introduction. I don't find much to complain of by way of partisanship, and I think, on the whole Nicolson strives and attains a nice balance between Anglican and Separatist and between undue admiration and undue criticism. I love the way he gives us Lancelot Andrewes, pious, holy man weeping for his sins and Lancelot Andrewes, betrayer of a congregation beseiged by the plague. We get the portrait of a flawed man striving for holiness. We get, in miniature a portrait of ourselves--of the contradictions and contraindications each of us lives out.

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Books Abandoned, Books Taken Up

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I'm sorry to say I've abandoned Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Queen of the South. What looked to be an interesting riff on The Count of Monte Cristo turned out to be an endless, sordid, and needlessly vulgar tale of life among the drug-runners. Give it a miss and go back to the far better, far more interesting The Club Dumas if you think you need to read a work by the normally very fine author.

So, the primary fiction read right now is Anna Karenina and I have to admit to having been captivated by it. It shows the usual Tolstoy weaknesses--weaknesses that are relatively easy to compensate for. For example, he tends to digression and commentary on societal ills of his time. Dickens did the same, but it came off somewhat more smoothly. War and Peace had interminable essays that preceded sections of the story. Generally they were about history and how we interpret it, but they were definite roadblocks to absorbing the far more interesting story. I suspect that these digressions are shorter and more contained in Anna Karenina at least so far as I have discovered.

I'm still reading and approaching the end of Adam Nicolson's enlightening and fascinating God's Secretaries which claims to be the story of the translation of the King James Bible, but is really much more a reflection of Jacobean England and the environment and people that gave rise to one of great works of literature of all time.

I will return to Mandelbrot's fascinating study of markets and market forces The (MIs)Behavior of Markets once I've completed Nicolson's book.

Yesterday evening in the bookstore I stumbled upon a set of mysteries by Peter Tremayne set in Ancient Ireland. They feature one Sister Fidelma and may or may not be grinding an axe with the present configuration of the Roman Catholic Church. The historical introduction certainly suggests as much; however, I haven't started to read the book itself, so it would be premature to make such a determination.

Finally, I am once again reading and luxuriating in Wilfrid Stinnisen's magnificent Nourished by the Word. Pray that it sinks in this time and I might better encounter God's love in His word and share it with all around.

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from God's Secretaries
Adam Nicolson

[referring to the Translators' notes on "The Song of Songs."]

That aching gap, between the ecstatic sexulaity of the poem and of the rather helpful and intersting notes which the Translators provide, might make us smile now, but it was clearly not a comic effect that the Jacobean Translators were after. The modern reaction to their binding of the religious and the erotic experience is a measure of what Eliot called the 'dissociation of sensibility' that occurred to English consciousness at some time later in the seventeenth century. We can no longer imagine that erotic passion and religious intelligence can be bound together into one living fabric. All we see in the commentary of Chaderton's company is what looks like their prudishness, their refusal to see the erotic and the passionate for what it is. But in doing that, we patronise them, we assume they were trying to conceal what they were so clearly and self-consciously making vital and present.

I have often wondered about this--about the lack of blood in the Crucifixion, that so easily got critics worked up about its violence, about the santization of religion, the removal from it, even in Catholic circles of some of the elements of sexuality. We tend to shy away from the overtly sexual imagery of the Song of Songs, to allegorize it before we have even absorbed it. The erotic and the passionate have little place in the sphere of modern religious sensibility. And perhaps that is the way the pendulum swings right now. At other times, it well could have been quite different.

But I recall an example in my own life, one that I occasionally still grapply with. I remember reading or hearing that the Chassidim, a group within Judaism that I do not sufficiently understand well enouogh to explain, were regarded among the very finest people for the diamond industry because of their strict scrupulosity in all money matters. And I remember upon first hearing it thinking, "How can turly religious people desire to make a lot of money?" For me their was a discrepancy between seeking money or wealth and religion. And yet, it is not money that is evil, it is the pursuit of money and the love of money above all else. I had somehow come by a generalilzation that suggested that money equalled a lack of a holy life. And certainly, that can happen. But didn't Jesus tell us "Seek ye first the kingdom of God." I would assume that if one's first goal were always the love and service owed to God, then it would be perfectly all right to work at whatever profession.

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On Scott Hahn

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I have enormous respect for Scott Hahn and his work. But I just can't seem to get over his writing style.

I was looking for books on Scripture written by/for Catholics. I came upon Hahn's Scripture Matters, and it shows the same unfortunate propensity for bad puns that bedevils his other works. To its credit, it appears (at least in the introduction available at Amazon) to be a somewhat more scholarly and serious consideration of the material at hand. But I sure wish I could overcome my personal dislike of this style of things.

I know I am in a minority. I know that most people truly benefit from Hahn's articulations of central truths; I regret only that I cannot be part of that audience. I know I am missing out, but it is something about which I can do very little.

I suppose I can savor Mr. Hahn's work in the Ignatius Study Bible, where there is very little room for the more appalling linguistic displays I have seen in some of his full-length works.

And worst of all, I really like well-constructed, well-considered puns--they are a real art form when they are used to produce a fruitful ambiguity in a work of literature. Joyce and Shakespeare both used them to brilliant effect, as do a great many lesser writers. I'm afraid that they are a trope in Mr. Hahn's hands that serves only to grate on my nerves. Ah well, chacun á son goût!

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Book List

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Present and Active:

Queen of the South--Arturo Perez-Reverte
God's Secretaries Adam Nicolson
Carmel, Land of the Soul Carolyn Humphreys


Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy

I have others part finished, lingering about waiting for something to fall off the list. But right now, I think it is safe to say that these are the primary attention getters.

I did buy what seems to be one of an interesting series by Word Among Us Press. There were three volumes of lives of Saints/Christian Heroes. I purchased the one that had both Deitrich Bonhoeffer and Takashi Nagai (among others). I read through a couple of the biographies/stories and found them enormously engaging. These are like longer versions of what is offered in the Magnificat each day. If you happen to be in a book store that offers them, you'd do well to take a look.

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I have friends who shudder at the thought of the Oprah Book Club. They look down their long slender noses at such middle-brow meddling in the great work of literature. And I think that they are much like many of my college professors, who despised Charles Dickens because he told stories that appealed to a great swath of the population.

I neither buy nor shy away from a book because it has Oprah's imprimatur. Of recent date, I had been ignoring Oprah's endorsement of Anna Karenina. That is to say, I was not tempted to by the book by the fact that it was a summer selection. On the other hand, it was very gratifiying to have it thrust into my face again.

I will readily admit, I have never read Anna Karenina. I've tried many, many times. But no matter how often I tried, I never got to the point in the book where Anna's name was first mentioned. I could not force my way through the weariness and dreariness of the domestic arrangements of the Oblonsky family. In truth, I regarded it as a "woman's book"--a sort of high-class romance gone awry.

Now, I have read War and Peace. By its very title you can tell that this is a man's man book. Bristling and macho from the word go (NOT). But something about the narrative in War and Peace drew me in and through the entire work, even though it took me forever to read it.

Well, I'm pleased to say that I bought the Oprah recommended translation of Anna Karenina and I have read to the point (and beyond) where Anna's name is first mentioned. It's amazing what difference a translation can make. This particular translation makes the book seem modern, a right now story of love and lust in Tsarist Russia. Okay, perhaps that's an exaggeration, but there is a freshness and a simplicity to this translation that is engaging. The table of characters is enormously helpful in sorting out who is related to whom and how. Moreover there are notes at the end that explain some of the more obscure elements of the text.

I'll let you know if I make it thorugh this time. But prospect are better, and I have Oprah to thank for it. Thanks Oprah, you do a great service to the community at large through promoting reading. Keep up the good work!

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Soulmaking--Alan Jones

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Mostly--a dreadful muddle. While the book claims to be a propounding of the faith of the desert fathers, it is, in fact, and endless rumination on the conjunction between psychotherapy and religion--elementally a revelation of what happens when good Christians become inextricably lost in their modernist and postmodernist paradigms.

Spirituality is the central purport of this work. Unfortunately the author lives entirely in the world of his head. His heart has long since been taken in thrall by a mind that has been cultured by the works of Jung and Freud.

The main problem with the book is not so much what it teaches as that everything the author touches is semi-obscured by prose that is thick as a London pea-fog. Occasionally, as yesterday's entry reveals, there is a sparkling, wonderful, insightful revelation--something that really spotlights an important aspect of our spiritualilty. These are unfortunately entirely too infrequent, and each time they occur, the Author choses to explicate them at such length that by the time one has finished the phrase "beating a dead horse" has suddenly got a picture to put next to it in the dictionary.

I suppose the author speaks to a certain kind of very intellectual, very rarified faith. He speaks largely to people whose faith is lived in their heads. He spends much of the book contradicting himself--at one point being "horrified and disgusted" by the dogmatic faith of fundamentalist interpreters of the Bible who have no notion of the expansiveness of God. Then later we are told that he doesn't judge these spiritual pinheads who have no notion of the God before whom they stand because it would damage his own standing with God.

The overall effect is that one comes to believe that Mr. Jones really has his heart in the right place. He does understand what it means to be Christian. He understands a good many of the trials we all face. The problem is that he is foundationally incapable of sharing that understanding with a person in a normal walk of lilfe.

I hope I do not need to say--NOT recommended.

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My Review Has Gone Missing


Sorry, the last entry was reference to a review that has somehow vanished into ether of Diana Wynne Jones's The Time of the Ghost. I'll try to reconstruct it in the near future. Suffice to say right now for dedicated fans only.

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On the Other Hand. . .


The Queen of the South by Arturo Perez-Reverte looks to be the usual tightly written suspense/mystery that one has come to expect from the author who produces mysteries for the Eco-reading set. While the narratives tend to be complex and multifaceted, there is a smoothness to the writing that really draws the reader in. I haven't even really started the book at this point, and yet I am drawn in by references to The Count of Monte Cristo and other evidences that the heroine of our title moves from hunted to hunter throughout the pages of the book. I'll let you know when I'm done.

And after all, there is something about the phrase and title "Queen of the South" that is vaguely portentous. When I read it in the Gospels, I have always wondered why this name rather than Sheba (to whom it refers). I don't know, but it adds to the beauty and the literary mystery of the Gospels.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from September 2004.

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